Workplace Weight Loss: One Size Doesn’t Fit All

By Rita Pyrillis

Nov. 29, 2016

weightloss_300There is no shortage of workplace wellness programs that focus on weight loss, but getting employees to participate in them is a challenge for employers who struggle to overcome the shame and stigma associated with obesity, among other obstacles.

“Understanding that negative emotions — guilt shame, loneliness — create barriers to effective behavior change is the core of long-term weight-control success,” said Dr. Jeremy Nobel, medical director at the Northeast Business Group on Health. “We talk about ways to provide information, education and support so that those barriers can be overcome.”

In addition to creating awareness of the emotional issues triggered by body weight, a recent NEBGH report recommends that employers adopt personalized weight loss programs as opposed to the more common “one-size fits all” approach.

The report, titled “Tipping the Scales on Weight Control: New Strategies for Employers,” recommends creating programs that are tied to an employee’s body mass index. For example, a program for employees with a BMI of less than 30 would include nutrition, fitness and behavioral coaching, subsidized gym memberships and digital health programs, while employees with higher BMIs would also have access to medically supervised weight loss programs and drug therapies.

“A foundation of this approach is treating the person as a whole being and doing it thoughtfully,” Nobel said. “Personalization prevents stigma. It is about understanding people’s attitudes, beliefs, skills and their environment.”

The report highlights successful efforts at three companies, including insurance carrier Aetna, which offers a virtual personalized coach and voluntary genetic testing that identifies genetic markers for obesity. According to the report, three-fourths of participants lost weight at an average of 10 pounds after one year and improved their levels of triglycerides and high-density lipoprotein. Aetna reported that participants generated monthly savings in health care costs of $122 per employee compared to the control group.

Employers looking to launch a weight loss intervention must take into account the individual needs of employees and make sure that their communications strategy reflects that.

“Don’t treat this population as a single homogenous group,” he said.

Rita Pyrillis is a writer based in the Chicago area.

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